The fact that running is good for you may not sound like news, but researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have found that even if you’re a regular runner in good shape, training for a marathon still has significant benefits for your heart.
Though in the past studies have focused quite a bit on elite runners, less research has gone into the health of more casual runners, which is increasingly important as marathon-running has undergone a surge in popularity over the last ten years, at least partially because of more participation from the middle-aged. “Most ‘recreational runners’ train with the goal of safely finishing the marathon and usually train less than their elite competitors,” says Dr. Jodi Zilinksi, the lead investigator of the study.
The researchers also focused on middle aged men because previous studies had found that population has a significantly higher heart attack risk while running a marathon than other populations.
The team followed 45 male recreational runners between the ages of 35 and 65 who were preparing to run the Boston Marathon on a charity team (they didn’t have to qualify to run, though about half had already run three or more marathons). The runners were provided with a training guide, nutrition tips, pacing advice and regular correspondence with coaches and asked to run between 12 and 36 miles per week. About half of the runners also had one risk factor for heart problems, like high cholesterol or blood pressure.
At the end of the 18-week program, runners saw significant changes in the factors for cardiovascular risk. Bad cholesterol fell by 5 percent, total cholesterol by 4 and triglycerides dropped by 15 percent. BMI also dipped slightly, while peak oxygen consumption went up four percent. “Even in a population that was relatively fit at baseline, they gained additional benefits from marathon training,” Zilinksi says.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to prep for one for heart health. It’s likely that running about 25 miles a week—however you do it—might give you the same effect. “Observational data has suggested that moderate, not extreme, amounts of physical exercise promote optimal long-term health,” Zilinksi says.
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